Setting the poetry of Walt Whitman

Walt Whitman
Walt Whitman

Newly completed three-movement cycle for SATB choir or vocal ensemble, I Dream’d in a Dream, is a setting of selections from Walt Whitman’s poetic masterpiece Leaves of Grass (1855). The first and third movements of the set will be premiered this Wednesday at New England Conservatory in Boston, MA. This will also be the first performance by an ensemble of young singers dedicated to the realization of newly-composed music: the NEC New Music Vocal Chamber Ensemble.

I am far from the first composer to set Whitman to music, and for good reason. His works have a directness and a universality that refuse to show their age, and speak to the reader (or listener) with a kind of emotional clarity and honesty that is, in my opinion, irresistibly appealing. The gentle wit and undying idealism that shine through the verses of Leaves of Grass allow the bold, declamatory quality of Whitman’s voice to ring true.

Although I previously set a poem from Leaves as an art song for baritone and piano (Laws for Creations), I’ve been wanting to write a choral piece with texts from Whitman for years, and until now had never quite managed to realize my vision of what this poetry should sound and feel like in a choral setting. It seems this creative impulse had, like many, a necessary gestation period. When I sat down to compose music last February for these particular poems, it clicked. The piece (about 11 minutes in duration) was begun and completed in less than two weeks.

I chose to set three poems on distinct but complementary topics: the title piece, I Dream’d in a Dream, is a vision of peace (“I saw a city invincible to the attacks of the whole of the rest of the earth; / I dream’d that was the new City of Friends; / Nothing was greater there than the quality of robust love“); Think of the Soul, a list of incitations to contemplation that cover the gamut of earthly and spiritual experience (“Think of the soul… think of loving and being loved… think of the time when you were not yet born…“) and resolve with a humanist affirmation (“The creation is womanhood… / Have I not told how the universe has nothing better than the best womanhood?“); and Among the Multitude, a love song to the “one” who finds a kindred spirit amongst the crowds of people (“Some are baffled–but that one is not–that one knows me.”)

These poems possess a unique combination of qualities–reflective, declamatory, muscular–which I attempted to reflect in my setting. However, this poetry is broad enough for each reader to understand in an entirely personal way. And although my piece comes from my own subjective interpretation, I also hope that listeners of my music will be able to see themselves and their own experience reflected in it.

If you’re in town, come check out the premiere of the first and third movements of I Dream’d in a Dream performed by the New Music Vocal Chamber Ensemble on Wednesday, April 6th, at 8:00pm in Brown Hall at New England Conservatory (290 Huntington Avenue, Boston, MA, 02115). The piece will be featured on a brief program of works by composers studying at NEC, including pieces for soprano and piano, jazz ensemble, and euphonium quartet. The concert is free and open to the public.

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